SENSE AND COLOR:

ARTISAN STORIES FROM OUR GRATEFUL DEAD COMMUNITY

By Trina Calderón

Rosie McGee and Her Grateful Dead Photos

A photography book fifty years in the making, artist Rosie McGee’s My Grateful Dead Photos and How I Came to Take Them, 1966-1991 is the book she always wanted to publish. The large, beautiful coffee table art book manifested during the forced isolation of the pandemic, a period Rosie used to fundraise and produce the book. In its first printing, she sold out 1600 copies and a second printing of 1200 is on the way, ETA mid-April, 2023.

Rosie learned about photography from her father when she was about twelve years old, and he brought her inside the darkroom to observe his process printing the tourist photos that he sold. She recalled, “It was a garage in the south part of San Francisco. The one that was being developed that I remember was the redwood trees at Muir Woods, it was like an eight foot table with this piece of paper that was blank and all of a sudden the woods appeared in the water, and that was amazing but what it really was at that point was spending time with my father doing something, just him and me, because that’s not something that happened very much.” He soon loaned her his camera to take photos of a middle school graduation event and Rosie experienced a visceral connection.

Jerry Garcia, Columbia University, NYC, 1968

Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, Columbia University, NYC, 1968

“I took the camera and immediately liked the feel of it in my hands. I was a little bit shy, awkward, and being behind the camera gave me something to do. It eventually gave me an identity through my teen years of, ‘oh, there’s the girl with the camera.’ It was a little less awkward because I was not with it as far as the popular kids,” she shared. The camera became a way for Rosie to document different events and she liked being that person. “Something happened somewhere along the line, and I don’t know why, still to this day, that I was compelled to document my life once I found a way to do it.”

Bobby Weir and Veronica, Mickey’s Ranch, Novato, CA 1969

Jerry Garcia, 1969

A French immigrant, Rosie came to San Francisco when she was four years old, a daughter in a Jewish family looking for an easier life than what post-war Europe had to offer. She came of age joining whatever she could to get out of the house and emerged a theater student, earning a scholarship to college at sixteen years old. Though maybe too much too fast, she left the older kids of college life and drama behind but found herself in the midst of a growing art scene in Sausalito and North Beach. She had a stint at Autumn Records, assisting maverick rock n roll DJ “Big Daddy” Tom Donahue with the new label. Her ability to be cool picking up bands from the airport or helping out in the busy office was her first encounter with the music business, and it was the first time she came across the Grateful Dead, who at the time were auditioning for the label as The Emergency Crew. They didn’t make the cut at the time but fulfilled their destiny playing Ken Kesey’s Acid Test parties. 

It was at the Muir Beach Acid Test in 1965 that Rosie met Phil Lesh, the bass player in the soon to be infamous psychedelic house band. They started dating and her life became intertwined with the Grateful Dead.

With her single fixed lens camera often in tow, she began to document her life blossoming within the counterculture movement. “It’s hard to describe, but I didn’t think of myself as a budding artist. I was like a journalist of my own life,” Rosie related. Quitting her job to travel to Los Angeles and live with Phil when the band moved south, she started shooting the musicians in a comfortable and intimate way. Her relationships and connection to the music inspired her to document what was happening around her—and dance on the stage at their shows.

Grace Slick, Newport Pop Festival, 1968

Through those early years, she became part of the inner circle of the Grateful Dead, one of the girlfriends along for the ride as the band developed their sound. The Bay Area music scene was flourishing, with Jefferson Airplane and other local bands playing shows in old dancehalls, and free shows at the Panhandle and Golden Gate Park where they’d spontaneously set up on flatbed trucks for whoever was around. They had hardly any money and lived together as an extended family while the world was changing around them. The guys had long hair, the women wore short skirts, and freedom meant liberation from “the man.” For Rosie, sometimes the compulsion to take pictures weighed against the ability to pay for developing, but when she did shoot, she aimed from the background and literally, from backstage.

“I got better with my framing before I learned about exposure, and blurriness, or how to avoid out-of-focus photos. I had an instinct and that’s where the artist was lurking in the shadows. Eventually, I learned some of the actual tricks of the trade that zeroed in on that even more,” Rosie explained. Her earliest shots in the new book are black and white shots of the band playing at Troupers Hall in Los Angeles, and they’re indicative of the way she sought out portraits of her subjects with a feeling for the moment rather than the studied foresight. As the years passed in her book, Rosie developed a great collection of shots of the band and other musicians in their scene. Living with Phil, she captured informal images of the extended family living out at Olompali, at 710 Ashbury, and in Novato at Mickey’s Ranch property.

Live Dead shoot, 1969

But having a camera to document her own life also meant if Warner Bros needed a band photo for a record at the eleventh hour, it was up to her to get it.   She described the funny impromptu photo shoot as artistry through adrenaline. “It was late in the afternoon, and I had to get the film to the lab by five when they closed in order to have them rush process it so I could send it down to Warner’s in time for their deadline. I had no time. I had thirty minutes, maybe, but I knew the sun was going down, and I only had a certain kind of film with certain kind of exposure possibilities. I just happened to be there with my camera, which I frequently was. And so, something I never did again, and didn’t want to do but had to, I stopped the band while they were playing. They were rehearsing and I said, ‘Guys, I’m really sorry, but we got to do this. We’ve got to do this. Sorry.’ And I said, ‘We got to throw together a band photo. We’ve only got a few minutes. Everybody grab something like a plant, or a chair or some props, whatever you can bring, let’s go outside.’” She quickly organized and framed the guys, and Jack Casady who snuck in on the ground, to pose for a band photo which went in the record inlay of Live Dead.

Sometimes, though, Rosie chose not to bring her camera and instead enjoy the moment, Europe ’72 being the perfect example. She related about not shooting on that legendary tour, “It was so freeing. I didn’t regret it one time. There were moments where I looked at something, and mentally had a rectangular frame in front of my eyeballs, I was going, ‘That’s a picture.’ That happens all the time. That happens to me my whole life, whether I have a camera available or not. But at the same time, I was completely free to just be on a tour and enjoy it.”

Other times, Rosie explains in the book, if she got too high, she would put the camera away. “The two just didn’t go together. I couldn’t be high on psychedelics and have this object in my face. Just couldn’t do it,” she said. Knowing when to put the camera away also gave her respect from the band. Her ability to not interfere within her close access granted her full access any other time. Rosie could read the room, and her respect for the mood and the interworkings of the scene resulted in fantastic images when she chose to shoot.

Pigpen, 1971

Betty Cantor-Jackson, 1971

“There’s the moment of composing the shot and taking the photos. That’s what it’s about for me. The big bonus is when I’m framing a photo. This doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it’s a big bingo, and that is when you know that this is going to be a memorable, wonderful photo. You just know. There’s some of those photos in my book, like when I knew about the photo of Pigpen at the Chåteau d’hérouville. He’s leaning up against the Chateau wall, sitting by himself, black and white. I was just walking by, and I turned, and I saw that, and I put the camera to my face, and I knew. Because what had moved me to put the camera to my face is what makes that picture. When those moments come up, again, sometimes it’s a scenic thing where the cloud moves aside and the sun comes through, and all of a sudden, it’s illuminated, and you got that moment, those are what you live for. The great guitar solo that you just play,” Rosie shared.

Sunshine Kesey, Columbia University, NYC 1968

Those photographs came from instinct and inspiration. Her book is full of them. “I’m not a performer. I never have been. But back in the day when I would get high with these guys, and they would start playing, I was compelled to come out and get closer, get inside that circle, and they let me. What can I say? They let me. And it didn’t last for all that long, but they let me, and I knew what the rules were. Just instinctively, don’t trip on anything. Don’t run into anybody. Don’t get in between Phil and Jerry. Don’t be stupid. Do it only when there’s enough room for you to do it. And it was blissful,” she related.

At DSO in Eugene, OR

Today Rosie runs her business from her home in Oregon, which includes licensing her images. When the weather cooperates, she goes out with her camera to local places she loves like the Columbia River Gorge, takes photos, and shares them on Facebook. She recently got into dot painting, on rocks, wood, and tables. And she counts her blessing every day that she came of age in San Francisco in the music scene. Her first book, Dancing with the Dead–A Photographic Memoir dives deeper into the exciting adventures she had in that scene, where many remember her dancing on stage or backstage with her camera around her neck.

She shared, “I am moved by the moments where I am taking pictures. It’s the best way to live in the present. And I’m totally immersed in the moment of creation. That’s being an artist. It’s the moment of being an artist, is why I do it. Like I said, I still document my life.”

LINKS:

https://rosiemcgee.com
https://www.facebook.com/rosiemcgeephotographer/
Sign up for her email newsletter at https://rosiemcgee.com/contact/

All Photographs © Rosie McGee

Trina Calderón is an LA-based writer, proud to be a part of the sunshine daydream of the Grateful Dead.